This has been the most active year in the history of local search when it comes to the introduction of new features. Google recently announced that it had made nearly 250 updates to Google Maps since the start of the pandemic, and just about every other local publisher, including Yelp, Bing, Foursquare, TripAdvisor, and even Apple Maps, has been busy.
As we near the end of this unusual year, I thought it would be useful to take stock of these changes and note the ones that are the most significant.
On March 20, the Google My Business team announced they would disable reviews and Q&A (since restored) in order to conserve human and machine bandwidth for critical updates. New listing creation and verification was also temporarily disabled. Google made these moves, in large part, in order to ensure that listings in critical categories, especially healthcare, would remain up to date.
The Google My Business product team also rushed to create new features in response to the crisis, such as a “temporarily closed” flag in the GMB dashboard and prominent attributes showcasing the availability of services like pickup and delivery. Healthcare was a primary focus in this phase of new feature development, which is still ongoing.
Given the dominance of Google as a tool for local search, and given the fact that Google provides a richer set of search and engagement metrics for each of its business profiles than any other publisher, we thought it would be worthwhile to examine Google My Business data as an indicator of consumer search trends during the time of the pandemic.
The verticals that are booming in the pandemic period, with major gains in overall GMB activity, include pharmacies, banking and finance, hardware and home improvement, general retail, gas and convenience, and grocery. Those whose struggles are borne out by significant GMB activity decreases include restaurants and eateries, branded retail, and hotels and accommodations.
I’m fresh from a couple of days wandering the halls of the Consumer Electronics Show, affectionately known as CES — the annual conference that descends upon Las Vegas in January and proffers the latest in technological solutions to improve every aspect of our daily lives. This is my first time attending the world’s biggest technology conference, where 4,500 companies this year are vying for the attention of 180,000 attendees, according to my Uber driver.
As I made my way through the crowds at the massive Las Vegas Convention Center and other conference venues, I tried to get a sense of the common themes defining consumer innovation as we begin a new decade.
A tweet on Monday from Google search liaison Danny Sullivan provides an explanation for the rankings shakeup that has perplexed the local search community since the beginning of November. Google began using neural matching to generate local search results.
Local search has just undertaken a huge evolutionary step. No longer are local results being matched to user queries solely on the basis of identifiable ranking factors, such as proximity to searcher, keywords in business names, primary category of the listing, review count, and so on. That isn’t to say such factors are now unimportant, but they have been augmented by a broader and more general sense of relevance delivered by neural matching.
For Brandify’s local search consumer survey, consumers were asked to name the tools they’ve used in the last 30 days to find information about businesses nearby. Though a vast majority of 77% named Google Maps over any other tool, there was a significant “second tier” group including Facebook at 38%, Yelp at 35%, and business websites at 32%.
The study also asked consumers about the frequency of searches, the range of businesses for which they searched, preferred devices, and the likelihood of visiting a business after searching.
The putative benefits of competing in vertically oriented channels come at a greater cost than was the case when GMB provided a unitary platform for all industries. Simply put, Google is serving the specialized needs of price-conscious travelers or those who want greater assurances when hiring a service professional, and in so doing, the company is creating additional channels to generate revenue through ads. More and more businesses will have to get used to spending their way toward greater exposure to their desired audiences — which is only odd in light of the fact that so much of local marketing has historically been organic in nature.
Enter Phase Three. As my column’s title suggests, I would argue that the old concept of citation building has largely lost its relevance, and that thinking of the local network as a system of channels — parallel, somewhat independent sources of consumer traffic — is a more appropriate paradigm for where we are now.
In all, there are approximately 10 independent sites and site categories that together make up the primary channels where any business should be well represented in order to be competitive.
The other day, Uber Eats announced a new service that struck me at first as a little surprising but, once I absorbed the idea, seemed strangely inevitable. In select cities like Austin and San Diego, you can now order food ahead of time, monitor your order status, and arrive at the restaurant just in time to begin dining, your table ready and waiting for you. This on-demand dine-in service is meant to remove time and effort from the experience of eating out, and it may also help restaurants fill empty tables during off-peak times by enabling special time-based incentives.
When I say it seems inevitable that an app would eventually “solve” waiting for your food at restaurants, I have two things in mind. The first is a quote from Twitter co-founder Ev Williams that, to me, strikes at the root of contemporary trends in innovation. The second point I want to observe here is that the highly representative user experience created by Uber Eats is taking place on a mobile phone.
Google’s calculated risk in creating a low bar for verification works out fine in a world where most business owners simply want to gain legitimate access to their own listings, and most businesses do operate within those ethical boundaries. But as we’ve seen elsewhere at this stage in the evolution of social networks, fraud and deceptive manipulation have become a kind of ghost in the machine, dominating darker sectors of the local marketplace and creating an atmosphere of distrust that may eventually prove more broadly contagious.
All of this is only possible when lots of activity is consolidated on a few platforms. Just as fake accounts attempting to engineer the 2016 election thrived in the vast and complex Facebook ecosystem, so too has Google’s dominance in local attracted its own horde of opportunists, drawn like moths to its flame. Indeed, fraud in local listings is just the latest in a long history of attempts, from link farms to keyword spam, to manipulate loopholes in Google’s regulations and algorithms.
The notion of “helping you get things done,” emphasized by Sundar Pichai in his I/O keynote, provides a through-line for many of the event’s announcements. It struck me watching the presentations how thoroughly Google has become a consumer electronics company, a marketer of devices where search is more a central feature than a standalone product. Google, in other words, has become thoroughly dedicated to marketing its famous search capabilities in the context of devices that help you perform daily tasks. In the process, it is transforming local search and how we relate to the world with electronic devices.
Google recently sent surveys to a number of Google My Business (GMB) users, asking a range of questions about their local marketing activities and their level of interest in certain paid features within GMB. The survey suggests that Google is at least thinking about a paid version of the GMB feature set. For the local search industry, a paid GMB product offered to businesses of all types could be quite disruptive, especially if it ended up gradually degrading the value of organic listings.
Google’s Knowledge Graph ambitions are expanding to include obviating heavy reliance on secondary sources like Wikipedia and being able instead to classify and cross-reference information as a native, self-sustaining activity on web pages themselves. That’s what makes a recent patent filing different from the evidence of the Knowledge Graph we’ve already seen in the wild.
While this more ambitious way of surfacing information about entities is not yet standard, in researching Google’s new interface for hotels, I think I’m seeing evidence of a real-world example.
Damian Rollison: Google’s Curtis Galloway, software engineering manager from the Google My Business app team, offered a fascinating peek into that team’s development process this week in a presentation at LSA19 in Dana Point, California. Galloway’s presentation revealed aspects of Google’s user-oriented focus when revising the app as well as its customer-centric orientation.
Damian Rollison: Among hundreds of sessions, exhibits, and demos, one theme came through clearly at IBM Think this month in San Francisco: for large enterprises especially, the AI-driven future for which we’ve been told to prepare is already here. In fact, enterprise companies are using IBM’s Watson technologies today to address a myriad of challenges inherent in the scale of those businesses.
For brand marketers, addressing the expansion of local search into voice and visual contexts is really a matter of digging in and getting more involved with rich local context that appears to grow more expansive by the day. Google alone has introduced a vast array of opportunities for business to differentiate themselves from the competition, including photos, videos, 360° virtual tours, business descriptions, menus, Posts, reviews, and several other features.
Damian Rollison: The annual report’s main takeaways are clear: to rank competitively for local searches today, you must focus your attention on three areas: one, providing Google with as much relevant local content as possible; two, pleasing your customers, pointing them to where they can review your business, and responding to their reviews; and three, creating a useful, relevant local landing page or website with authoritative backlinks.
Damian Rollison: It became clear to me, during Yelp’s presentation at the recent Brandify Summit, that the company has become a data amplifier. Here I’m making use of Gib Olander’s helpful term for companies whose data finds its way into a multitude of consumer-facing channels. In this column, I break down the significance of that state of affairs for hyperlocal marketing.
What Amazon has done is create a channel for the entrepreneurial impulse of small business owners that would appear to sidestep local commerce completely. But has local really been removed from the equation?
At times, the research findings published in our industry seem a little suspect. But in one vertical in particular, there’s a body of academic research that speaks to exactly the kinds of questions we want answered about reputation management—namely, does online review monitoring and response really make a difference to a business’s bottom line?